Chaos Theory

In a recent op-ed about the chaos of the current state of the technology business, Kara Swisher called out AWS’s facial recognition software as emblematic. Additionally, she feels that Rekognition is perhaps one of the creepiest names you could give surveillance software and we agree. But not for the same reasons. As naming purists who take pride in our craft we abhor substituting “k” for “c.” It is the laziest and least creative approach to naming we know of. But on a strategic level, AWS would have or should have known that this product would face public scrutiny and therefore we would have advised them to name it something more diverting, more benefit oriented, or at least more benign. Yes, of course, the product is the same but just imagine, if you will, if it was named something like CrimeSolver or StreetSafe, you would have at least avoided Ms. Swisher’s wrath.

HD 17156B or Sauron?

We are not big on crowdsourcing names. Besides the obvious reason, so obvious we needn’t state it here, you end up with a name that represents the lowest common consensus. Creating a brand name isn’t rocket science but like say surgery, it is best left to practicing professionals. However, when there is the opportunity to name things that total more than every individual grain of sand on earth, i.e. stars, planets and exoplanets, then, maybe, perhaps, enlisting some help might be in order. And so the International Astronomical Union is celebrating its 100th birthday by inviting the world to name all sorts of astronomical orbs and orboids. We can get behind this kind of crowd sourcing. Here it is less about the names and more about raising awareness in the IAU. But keep it on the downlow.  A certain someone might want to withdraw his country from this multilateral organization.

A Helluva Hole

Before a black hole was a black hole it was a Light Sucking Gravitational Vortex or so some such astronomical adjective.  The general public didn’t seem to care that much until a very smart person called it a Black Hole which the press relished (no one loves a good bon mot more than a reporter) and the public couldn’t get enough of.  Well, last week we finally got a photograph of the heretofore theoretical thing and as is the perk of the scientist who discovered it they get to name their discovery. She reached out to a professor of Hawaiian languages for a suggestion. With fewer letters than wheels on a semi, what Hawaiian lacks in sounds is more than made up for by an abundance of imagery especially in the natural world.  The professor offered Pōwehi, and according to the NYT. “The word is derived from the Kumulipo, a centuries-old Hawaiian creation chant of 2,102 lines, and it means “the adorned fathomless dark creation.” It stems from “pō,” which means powerful, unfathomable and ceaseless creation, and “wehi,” an honorific befitting someone who would wear a crown, Professor Kimura said in an interview on Friday.”

Sounds like a perfect fit to us!

A Good Word Spoiled

The two governing bodies for the game of golf, the American United States Golf Association (quite prosaic in way that Trump might have named it), and the British, Royal and Ancient (quite pompous in a way that only a bunch of upper-class twits could have named it) changed some of the rules of golf as of January First, 2019.

Spectators and participants have now had a little more than three months to watch and play with the new rules and, as is the case with such things golf, some are good, some are bad and all are incomprehensible.

Included in the new rules were a few changes in the jargon. To wit:

A “hazard” is now a “penalty area.” What a shame. A hazard is so much richer. The only imagery associated with a penalty area is the place where your kids go during a timeout.

In head to head play, aka match play, the elegant and oh so British terms have been terminated for more universally understandable but boring words. “All square” is now “tied,” as is “halved.” “Dormie” may still be used, though it is unclear. Let’s hope it stays in use as its etymology is lovely. Dormie is a state near the end of the match where neither player can lose, (don’t ask.) The term is derived from the Latin and French for sleep, dormir, as in dormitory. What a comforting idea - finishing out a competitive and fun GAME where you can’t lose so you can just sleep through the remainder.

But none of these terms were really confusing; even a casual spectator could intuit their meaning. But, alas, they didn’t fix the following terms for different types of games which require one to carry My Little Pocket Golf Dictionary to suss out the differences:

Four Ball

Foursomes

Best Ball

Better Ball

Even if you, dear reader, care to know the differences, I get a headache just thinking about explaining them.

The Patch That Ate Oahu

Regular followers of this blog, both of you, will recall my diatribe against the word “Patch” to describe the whirring gyre of plastic in the north central Pacific Ocean.  I was recently reminded of my exchange with the owners of this name as I read, with sadness, the report of the failure of the contraption aimed at cleaning it up. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a misnomer of existential proportions.  A patch by definition is small; an elbow patch, a cabbage patch, a patch of land. But the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is twice the size of Texas consisting of 80 bazzilion metrics tonnes of pure shite.  Like the Holy Roman Empire of yore, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is neither great, nor a patch. While no doubt addressing it will require an engineering feat of monumental effort, there is an easy thing to do that will begin to turn more public attention – and money – to it and that is to call it what it is; the Monstrous Garbage Dump Disaster.  Much harder to ignore than a patch, I’d say.

Fields and Farms

Part of my day is spent in business development, i.e. reaching out to prospects and sharing a little bit about Uppercase and how we can add value.  Building physical address databases of companies from Austin to Boston to Charlotte to Detroit, I was struck by the names of the ‘burbs of the Motor City.  The names of most of the towns where these companies reside are innocuous, with no other meaning that that which is transparently obvious. But I found Detroit suburb names near uniformly communicating the same idea. Town after town is named Farm, Farms, Field, or Hills.  The reasoning is pretty clear. The town’s developers, recognizing Detroit as a busy hard-working industrial center, surely sought to attract home buyers to their developments using as bucolic sounding names as possible.  Not sure where Grosse Pointe fits though.

A Few Self-Righteous Insights for Putative Professional Communicators

After a highly random survey of our competitors via their websites we have drawn some conclusions about design and content and feel compelled to share our profound learning with the world.

  • If you are touting your firm as one capable of original thinking, you might want to reconsider using the most tiresome stock photography available from the first nine photos on Google Images as the main imagery on your sight.

  • Perhaps there are better, or at least different, icons to represent your creativity than a light bulb.

  • You say you are great at “engaging” consumers but it strains credulity when you write that using tiny dark gray type against a black background.

  • If your latest news release, post or social media update is older than a couple of months, you might want to consider removing them all together. For example, announcing “ThinkFest - 2015 starts tomorrow” on your front page makes us wonder if you ever returned.

  • If your customers can’t say anything nice about you, then don’t post it.  Here is one from an ad agency’s site and we kid you not: “Their creative was good, but their account management was traditional.” Now maybe that sounds better in person, but on paper, well, duh.

  • When you are in the relationship business and claim your people make the difference, perhaps using the most dreary, posed, staged, obviously stock photo of a nice politically correct diverse group of perfect humans leaning in over a desk top computer belies your claim.

  • A four-color thing – take your pick; rain boots, umbrella, pencil – in a black and white photograph doesn’t mean you can “break through the clutter.”

  • Please make it easy for your prospects to contact you. Why do I need to go to LinkedIn to find out your address or who’s running the show?

  • You know the cute little conceit of changing your headshot when your visitor hovers the cursor over it? Not sure an image of Michael Jackson is what you want to project.

  • As a creator of ideas, you might want to be a little more sensitive to IP rights. Using imagery from The Simpsons, Seinfeld, the NFL or Marvel, might send a signal to any potential client that, well, legal matters are not your concern.

  • As a website designer, shouldn’t your website itself (not just your work samples) actually be pretty good?  I mean something at least a couple of degrees removed from the most basic WordPress template?

  • Your dogs are ugly, sorry.

Introducing Vomit Motor Corp.

We just got our first exposure to Guangzhou Automobile Group Motor Co., Ltd. who, clearly in another three second effort of naming wants to be referred to as GAC Motor.  They are a multi-billion-dollar enterprise so this no meme-worthy slip in translation. And even if they want people to refer to it as Gee A Cee, we won’t because GAK is shorter and more fun to say.  They have some good car names, a little too trendy and non-differentiating for our tastes, yet not horrible.  But GAC? Makes us want to puke.

Artificial Intelligence? We Prefer the Real Kind

Sometimes things get named by professional namers and sometimes they don’t. This is most notable in products or services that are not owned by any company but are more or less simply in the public realm either by default or through some consortium.  Take WiFi for example. A coined and trademarked word created by a person specializing in name development.  On the other hand, consider LTE (long term evolution) created by, well no one in particular. One can just imagine its development by a group of tech types who spent maybe three seconds thought on it. Over time LTE like other things works well enough simply by force of use but is the idea of light, less than, as opposed to serious and weighty and important really the image one wants to convey?  We think of this whenever we see Artificial Intelligence. Certainly, this area of the tech sector is not suffering by any means, but with the word artificial having no redeeming qualities whatsoever, it is certainly a poor choice.  

We’d suggest looking to the landscaping field for an idea. Astroturf is a trademarked brand but almost generic now.  The two terms used these days are artificial turf and synthetic turf.  Gimme synthetic turf, a synonym to artificial to be sure but conjuring a more tech, more nuanced feel, any day.  We think Synthetic Intelligence projects a much more positive feel.  And besides, don’t we already have enough artificial intelligence emanating from Washington DC?

Nafta Gets a Rebrand

Sometimes a name change is all that it takes to win. Consider the revised NAFTA. By most expert accounts it is a series of minor tweaks (minor, of course depending on whose ox is gored, or in this case, whose cow is milked) that were the result of overdue and ongoing work long before it became a political football.  Trump claims that USMCA “kind of has a nice ring to it,” and while it doesn’t have any ring to it nice or otherwise it does put America first. And for good measure separates the countries the way NAFTA united them. In just one simple name (or initialism, more precisely) Trump has encapsulated his world view: America first, America alone, allies unhappy. One almost has to wonder how branding it “TRUMP” might have played?

Somewhere, a Dunkin' is Missing a Donut

What are the pros and cons of a name change? On the plus side there’s excitement, curiosity, a story to tell. On the down side there’s excitement, curiosity and a story to tell. Many marketers just split the difference and keep a foot in the old while taking a step in the new. It’s not a bad call. In DD’s case, they appeared to have generally positive brand awareness but saddled with a name that no longer described who they are or reflected part of the lifestyle of a desired customer base - fewer fatty donuts, more upscale java. Dunkin’ is a safe choice if not inspired. But it does seem an opportunity went missing. You gotta change all the signs anyway so why not craft a new brand and attendant experience that drives foot traffic? You might just sell a few crullers along side a moca-java-frapacafe-amerespresso.

A Street Car Named Kowalski

Turns out even playwrights struggle with names. They and their producers wrestle with the same issues marketers do: is the name descriptive enough? Is it too descriptive, leaving nothing to the imagination? Is it too opaque? Does it mean something unintended in slang? Is it too long to fit on the marquee?  Can they get the dotcom?  The chief theatre critic at the New York Post has penned a piece describing the challenges of marketing “Kinky Boots,” “Urinetown,” “The New One,” and this gem, “Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties; In Essence, a Queer and Occasionally Hazardous Exploration; Do You Remember When You Were In Middle School and You Read About Shackleton and How He Explored the Antarctic? Imagine the Antarctic as a P____ and It’s Sort of Like That.”

But what hit closest to home for us namers is the closing quote, “when shows (product) becomes a hit (household brand) that means they have great titles (brand names).”

Names Are Important Part 26

Fires get named, just like brands do, because names communicate information quickly. According to Cal Fire as reported in the New York Times, “Officials said that quickly coming up with a label provides firefighters another way to locate the blaze and allows officials to track and prioritize incidents by name.” But there is a bit of difference.

Fire names tend to identify a piece of geography which otherwise, unlike a strong brand name, doesn’t really signify anything. But like a brand name the fire name is infused with meaning, usually apocalyptical, as the product, in this case the fire, becomes an experience. Mann Gulch, Witch, Ute Park, Spring Creek could be benign suburban housing developments absent of context but for those who know these places, these names are are anything but benign.

SCOOT OVER

Within days of each other two opinion pieces appeared about electric scooters invading San Francisco and, interestingly, looked at the story from the same point of view; they’re not cool, but they are fun. We thought we’d take a look at the brand names and see if we could draw a few insights from the four leaders; Bird, Lime, Spin and Skip.

  • Insight #1:  If anybody put in any thought in creating a name that would have market resonance it is not clear here. These four contain all the buzz of beige wall paper.
  • Insight #2: What little thought did go into creating these names appears to have been limited to “make it short.”
  • Insight #3: These names are anything but cool. But maybe that wasn’t an issue. But then again, how could it not be… these are scooters after all. Skateboards are cool. Surfboards are cool. Skis are cool, and snowboards, while not that cool are cooler than scooters. All these names are light, fluffy and decidedly unhip. But I guess if you are riding a scooter in public, you must feel pretty self-confident anyway.
  • Insight #4: They may have been working against a stacked deck. Linguistically, scooter sounds like an emanation from one’s backside. And everything else about the word is childlike; “scoot along now” is as dismissive and diminishing as one can be in three words.
  • Insight #5: Taken together they offer a meta lesson in naming; two are fanciful, two are descriptive, zero are invented, all are monosyllabic but none actually invite you into a conversation.

One is reminded of a certain highly fitting but equally inappropriate joke.

It's Not a Gas

   American democracy is going to hell in a clutch-purse yet our interest lies in the code name for the FBI’s investigations into certain foreign power’s attempts to influence our election. With a prescient eye to the storm to come some wag at the Bureau entitled the operation Crossfire Hurricane, a nod, as anyone older than 12 knows, to the Stone’s crucible song Jumpin’ Jack Flash.  FBI policy suggests - but does not require - that codenames come from a randomly generated list. But clearly, someone foresaw this was not going to be a quiet, run-of-the-mill operation but, indeed, a stormy – pun intended – one. And, BTW, there's another eerily portentous line in that song that is well applicable to the target of said investigation… something to do with being schooled in a hard way.

Be Best, Think Different

The low hanging fruit is to take pot shots at FLOTUS’s first initiative and while derivative to be sure, the name Be Best is exceptionally strong. Grammarians will take issue, maybe rightly so given the target audience, but that’s just the point; the target audience will identify with it. It is traditionally aspirational yet rendered in contemporarily rebellious construction. It is at once a goal, an encouragement and an admonition.

The Dengue Diner

   The adage the all publicity is good publicity has always been suspect to this writer, but there are so many examples these days, that I may no longer be one of the few to feel this way. 

   Creating a provocative brand name for the purpose of generating the level of awareness that only press coverage can deliver can be a legitimate strategy – see Soylant, but there can be long term consequences. It remains to be seen where the Asian restaurant chain Yellow Fever (both a disease and slang for sexual preferences) will end up. They made the cover of the Times to be sure but despite the owner’s rationale, it was not favorable. The bigger question is what was Whole Foods thinking when they signed up for an onsite retail partnership?  A few freestanding shops in strip malls for Yellow Fever is one thing but aligning with what is a questionable if not downright offensive name seems to be a question WF didn’t bother to ask.

   If they are successful, will the spin-off, Ben’s Botulism Burgers, be far behind?

TED should be TWED

   These are fascinating talks to be sure but there is a certain irony to the whole affair.  Maybe TED no longer means Technology, Entertainment and Design.  Maybe like IBM, it is just TED. But if TED is still an acronym, it needs, well need may be too strong, but it should be updated to TWED. The talks cover a range of topics but not too much on what is maybe the most powerful topic of all, the Words. Presenters speak to the power of technology, entertainment and design but the real power, the real force, the real launch pad for TED are the words themselves. The speakers have bona fides, they have stage presence but what gets them selected, what allows them to engage their audience is the power of their words. I’d argue it is words and language that not only are the building blocks for technology, entertainment and design, but are the very engine that drives them.  So as awkward as it sounds, let the next talk be a TWED talk.

Garbage Patch Kids Part 2

   We reached out to the folks behind the Great Pacific Garbage Patch report and shared our opinion about the name.  Amazingly they responded - who does that anymore? - and politely informed us that the term was created and accepted by the scientific community.  I wrote back and opined that, from a marketer’s perspective, the scientific community is not the audience – Joe Doaks is the audience and calling it a “Patch” is not going to give him even the slightest pause in altering his behavior. And, for good measure, I added that defining this as a marketing problem instead of a scientific one dramatically increases the chances for a solution.  No response to that, quelle surprise!

   But you don’t have to be a tree hugger to maybe use one less plastic bag if you are now aware of the Horrific Pacific Garbage Disaster.  Am I right?

Garbage Patch Kids

The journal Scientific Reports reported this month that the circulating trash dump in the Pacific Ocean known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is four to 16 times bigger than previously thought. It contains an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of rubbish and covers an area four times the size of California. Given this is a very real, very tangible example of the existential threat of climate change, pollution, and human’s treating the planet like a dump, it deserves a rebrand. “Patch” simply doesn’t convey the enormity of the problem, indeed, it downplays it.  Patches are small, they cover little holes or tears. This dump is anything but that.  It is doubtful this “product” has a brand manager, but if it does, introduce us and we will brand this monstrosity with a moniker guaranteed to get folks to sit up and notice.